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Funny Money: 5 Easy Ways to Nibble at the Costs of Eating Out

It may be cheapest to cook at home, but you can save money eating out without giving up restaurants altogether. Here are five easy ways.

how to save money on eating outAs far as sustenance goes, there’s nothing more irresponsible than eating at restaurants. And minimalist bloggers are never shy about telling you so.

While it’s always more cost-effective to gather your ingredients and cook them yourself, sometimes, for whatever reason, you just gotta eat out. For tightwads, it can physically hurt to shell out $10 or more for a hamburger or $3 or more for soft drinks.

But don’t despair. The upside of the spendy world of eating out is that there are infinite ways to save money eating out without sacrificing the experience altogether. Peruse this menu of money-saving measures and see which of them are tasty enough to stick to your ribs. And on that note: mmm, ribs.

Time your buffet trips

One way for heavy eaters to get the most out of their hunger games is to exploit an all-you-can-eat establishment. I could write an entire column, if not a set of Encyclopedia Eatannicas, about the finer points of getting the most out of buffets, but my No. 1 tip is to hit them up even earlier than the belt-above-the-bellies crowd of retirees. If you visit the buffet just before they switch from the lunch to dinner offerings, you’ll get the higher-quality stuff at its freshest, and at the lower lunch price. Imagine eating your third plate of mac & cheese before it starts to turn dry and orange. Live the dream, people.

Do drinks and dessert elsewhere

Booze, soda and cheesecake always seem like good ideas at the time, but only bring up indigestion when you take a look at the check and realize how badly you were gouged to indulge your sweet tooth or booze tongue. It’s always cheaper to put the costly add-ons off til afterward. Think ahead by hitting up a grocery store in advance and you can schedule an afterparty with invited guests gin, Mr. Pibb and Betty Crocker on your couch. You’ll save enough to justify your next night out that finishes up as a night in.

Look for cheaper alternatives to fancy joints

For every high-class steak house, there’s a dive that Yelpers will swear makes t-bones that are just as good. For every P.F. Chang’s, there’s a Pei Wei that serves the exact same food for cheaper, and without the need for a sit-down restaurant level tip. Do your research by scanning online reviews and your alt-weekly’s best-of lists. Dining aficionados swear that when you go high-class, you’re paying for the service and the ambiance. I say screw all that because the only thing worth hemorrhaging cash for is flavor.

Avoid paying for kids’ meals

While restaurateurs may have forgotten to add a badly needed ‘n’ to the word ‘restaurateur,’ they remembered to do something else: Cut the portions of regular meals by 80 percent, reduce the prices by 20 percent and then call it a kiddie meal. Don’t play this game. Either split up a portion of your massive plate of overindulgence to share it with Junior, or ask if they offer a free kiddie plate of cheese and veggies to tide over your whippersnapper. If your offspring is a big eater, just order a full-size portion, bag up what he doesn’t eat and use it to feed him or yourself the next day. And, with any luck, the day after as well.

Turn Tuesday and Wednesday into your weekends

I’m sure this has happened to you. You check your email, find some amazing coupon from your favorite place, then read the fine print that says the offer is only available on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. That’s because no one eats out those days, so dining establishments are willing to do just about anything to coax people through the door. Their goal is to get people eating out midweek as well as weekends, but instead you can just decide to make Tuesdays and Wednesdays your Friday and Saturday nights and settle for Ramen noodles and such when everyone else is hitting the town. You’ll get better service, cheaper food, and may even be able to stand on your table and shout, “I am the king of Tuesday eating!” without too many people noticing.

How do you save money eating out?

Published or updated on February 12, 2014

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About Phil Villarreal

Phil Villarreal writes Funny Money weekly for Money Under 30. He lives in Tucson and works for the Arizona Daily Star. He's also an author, blogger and Twitterer.


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  1. Samantha says:

    I only order water when eating out.I forgo paying $2.79+ for endless soft drink or tea and just drink water with lemon. I will order an appetizer on occasions, and I almost never order restaurant desserts. If I’m in the mood for dessert, I’ll stop for an ice cream cone after leaving the restaurant. Anyway, most restaurant desserts are at least 1,000+ calories!

  2. These are great tips I just to have little tricks when my sister lived with me. For example if we were broke and still wanted to eat and not eat fast food. We would go to asian restuarants were they had large portions and we would pick one entree and split it. I have a lot of other tricks like this they only problem is now I live alone I do not how to translate them.But I know I am spending to much when I eat out.

  3. Sarah says:

    Not crazy about most of these ideas, especially the buffet idea. There’s a difference between living frugally and acting like a 80 year old Florida retiree. Plus one of the most effective ways to save when you eat out is missing – read your receipt! Almost 50% of the time my bill is wrong – happy hour drinks charged full price, swaps charged as sides, gratuity included even if the party is under the mandatory size for automatic gratuity… Also, BYOB whenever possible. Call the restaurant and see if there’s a corkage fee – if it’s reasonable, bring your own bottles. Most casual restaurants in NYC charge less than $10. Take advantage of Restaurant Week deals and remember that often, you’re not eating out because you need calories and sustenance – you’re eating out to spend time with friends.

  4. […] Funny Money: 5 Easy Ways to Nibble at the Costs of Eating Out […]

  5. I check Scoutmob for deals. Scoutmob has deals for a lot of local restaurants, 50% off. Also, no apps or dessert.
    Drink and main course will do just fine.

  6. Anna says:

    I love this post! Eating out at restaurants is the easiest way for someone to bust their budget, but there is a fine line between being budget-conscious and painfully cheap. It is very important to treat yourself for your hard work — and financial responsibility! — and is OK to go out to eat every now and then. A good way I prevent restaurant dining from eating into my budget is by doing the reverse of the second tip — I only go out for drinks, an appetizer or dessert. Meeting friends and family for an appetizer and a drink is a much more budget-friendly way to achieve the dining-out experience but costs at least half the price of a full meal. I also allow myself to do this only twice a month to make sure I am controlling these outings but still allowing myself a little fun. Life is too short to eat ramen noodles every night, but too expensive to dine out regularly, too. :)

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